Hamas’ popularity hinges on war and politics

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Palestinian supporters of the Islamist movement Hamas wave national and Hamas flags during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 30, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Abbas Momani)

By: Bayan Abdel Wahad

Published Saturday, September 20, 2014

After the end of the crisis, there are legitimate questions regarding the popular base of the Resistance factions. However, there is a difference between asking about the popularity of resistance per se, a question answered by the sacrifices and endurance of the people, and asking about the popularity of a particular faction, which had ruled without having had prior experience, and then left power weeks before the war, though it had declared that two previous wars had been waged to topple its rule.

Gaza – Before Hamas members become part of this Islamist group that is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, they have to swear an oath of allegiance to “listen and obey in hardship and ease, whether the task is appealing or hated.” What this oath means is that they have no right to argue with the first-tier leaders and question their decisions, whether the matter at hand is religious or political, especially since it is recognized within the group that there is no separation whatsoever between religion and politics.

Despite this rigid structure, dramatic regional developments in the second half of this year prompted the movement to agree to reconciliation with its rival Fatah. Recall that Hamas had entered politics back in 2006, winning more than two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Council elections. But several members in Hamas have since noted their reservations against the reconciliation move, which they described as “dangerous,” because they believe the “consensus” government formed at the end of May was a “technocratic government in form, but a Fatah government in essence.”

Even at the media level, there were signs of protest, including the headline carried by Al-Risala, a Hamas-affiliated newspaper, on June 2, declaring the government an “Abbaso-cratic Government,” in a play on the words Mahmoud Abbas and technocratic. President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas had insisted on appointing Riad al-Malki as foreign minister, even though this figure was rejected by Hamas. The dispute threatened to collapse reconciliation efforts, but Hamas soon agreed to the entire lineup. The decision made at the level of the political bureau of the movement, agreeing to Abbas’ conditions, had a deep impact on the broad popular base of the Islamist group, both within official structures and in the ranks of its supporters, especially those who are against integration with “secularist” Fatah.

Moreover, Hamas’ entry into power 8 years ago, and its attempt to step down leaving the fate of over 40,000 civil servants and their families hanging, also affected the popular base of the movement and its popularity. The situation was made more difficult with the worsening salary crisis and the campaign on banks, until war came and put a freeze on the Palestinian political crisis, and postponed the internal popular and official debate for 51 days.

After the war, other popular voices protested against Hamas in addition to Fatah, when the immediate results of the Cairo negotiations dissipated, and mudslinging in the media returned, amid fears that reconstruction efforts would become hostage to these quarrels. The popular memory also feared a repeat of the experience of the Palestinian split 8 years ago, should the Palestinian Authority return to the Gaza Strip without the differences having first been resolved, which means there could be another “bloody June” in the offing.

Nevertheless, Hamas’ political leadership has sought to promote its vision by emphasizing an approach that balances private and public interests. Mousa Abu Marzouk, member of Hamas’ political bureau, used grassroots engagement through mosques and closed-hall meetings to explain why Hamas is doing a climb-down.

One of Abu Marzouk’s arguments regarding reconciliation with Fatah, according to informed Hamas sources, was the need to protect Hamas from decline due to what is being termed internally as the “Arab Autumn,” which led to the demise of the Islamists who had initially emerged as the victors following the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The sources acknowledged that there are dissident voices within Hamas opposed to the government led by Rami Hamadallah, who was previously part of the Hamas-Fatah schism. However, the sources said that Hamas operates in accordance with the shura principle, and makes its decisions on a consensual basis.

At the grassroots level, resentment has reached a peak due to the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza in an unprecedented manner, both before and now after the war. The unemployment rate has exceeded 40 percent while poverty has jumped to over 39 percent. The issue here is not the Resistance and its conduct, which is a source of popular pride, as much as it is about the conduct of the previous Hamas government, whose administrative cadres continue to work and make statements in Gaza.

A large segment of the citizens are accusing Hamas of clinging on to posts at the expense of the interests of the people, on the grounds that it remained in power for 8 years without regard to the reality in which the people live, and did not make concessions until it found itself in a dangerous spot and found no other alternative.

In evaluating Hamas’ tenure, political analyst Talal Okal said that the performance of the government has greatly impacted Hamas’s popularity. In addition, he said, the issue of the split itself brought many disasters upon the people and Hamas in particular. However, Okal opined that Hamas had run the government in tough conditions amid deep Arab transformations, “bearing the responsibility alone without being able to make partnerships with others without Fatah.” Okal added, “Those who want to rule must know that people’s issues are many, and it is not easy to address them, especially issues such as the provision of electricity and water, and opening the crossings.”

One clear example of the extent of discontent with the movement from within is what the employees of the Gaza government are saying. These employees had joined Hamas’ security and civil administration after 2007. In separate statements to Al-Akhbar, several of these employees mentioned that they were originally members or supporters of the Islamist movement, but said that their confidence in their leaders had declined after they failed to compel Mahmoud Abbas to pay their salaries.

Abbas had repeatedly refused to retain the 46,000 civil servants in Gaza in the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, claiming the government budget would not be able to afford it. Even after the war, the consensus government is not signaling that it is serious about assimilating the Hamas-appointed civil servants. Official sources say that at best, civilian – but not military – employees might be retained.

Other than the deteriorating living conditions, what incensed many people working and trading in Gaza, especially in small and medium-sized businesses, is that the Hamas government continued to collect taxes even from those with limited income, though the government stopped doing so for short periods of time in the past. Here, political circles believe that despite Hamas’ announcement of accepting to contend in the elections, there are real fears of a setback in the ballot boxes at the presidential and legislative elections, though some suggest the recent war could help Hamas in this regard. Still, how Hamas will manage the post-war phase will be crucial.

The same Hamas sources said that one of the strongest motives behind Hamas’ decision to go towards ending the split and returning to the resistance role is the decline in the group’s popularity locally. The sources said that Hamas is now attempting to emulate the Hezbollah experience, which retains seats in the Lebanese parliament while maintaining its Resistance weapons.

The war that started on July 7 was against Hamas’ will, according to the sources, changing the people’s perception of the group, and altering many conceptions associated with Hamas’ officials clinging to government posts at the expense of the resistance, especially after the formation of military units dubbed “Field Discipline” with the goal of preventing factions from launching rockets against the territories occupied in 1948 before the war.

These sources, which declined to be named, continued, “We had to pay around $2 million a month in salaries to the Field Discipline force protecting the borders, to avoid a direct confrontation with the occupation at the time. We were preparing ourselves for the battle, which is what gave us the readiness we ultimately showed.” The sources added, “Hamas will not be defeated, and it is growing stronger with time. But its popularity can only come through its performance on the field.” But at the same time, the sources acknowledged that the performance of the government has negatively impacted Hamas’ popularity in many stages.

Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military arm, sought to improve the society’s attitudes toward Hamas during the war, for example through its policy of declaring surprises in an unprecedented manner in the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, revealing them only gradually. This increased popular support for the Resistance during the war in general.

All this helped improve Hamas’ image within its own ranks, as well as popular circles, but not in the short term. It seems that Hamas sought directly after the war to commission opinion polls, but for objectivity’s sake, it is worthwhile to shed light on a poll released by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research with support from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Ramallah.

The survey polled a sample of 1,270 people in the West Bank and Gaza between August 26 and 30. It showed that 79 percent of people believe Hamas had won, that 3 percent believe Israel had won, while 17 percent thought both sides had lost. The vast majority (86 percent) supported launching rockets from Gaza into Israel. Fifty-seven percent refused disbanding armed groups in Gaza while 25 percent backed this measure after the end of the blockade and the elections, in addition to 13 percent who backed it in the event of peace with Israel. It is also worth noting that the approval rate of President Abbas rose to 49 percent in Gaza, compared to 33 percent in the West Bank, versus 70 percent and 83 percent for Khaled Meshaal in Gaza and the West Bank respectively.

Analyst Okal explained that the Resistance’s performance drives its popularity at the local level, as well as in the Arab world and internationally. He said, “When a lot of blood was shed and destruction increased, people were affected by the tragedy, but all these figures are not durable.” He added, “The problem is that the popular mood is volatile and cannot be relied upon in the ballot boxes later. Certainly, Palestinian society is concerned but public opinion is unstable.”

On the other hand, Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank seems to be increasing, especially with the ongoing practices by the Palestinian Authority against the Resistance and the faltering peace process, amid rising settlement activity and crackdowns by the Israeli army. At a time when people in Gaza are protesting against Hamas’ government policies, the popularity of the movement in the West Bank is in good shape, as evidenced by the solidarity marches in the cities of the West Bank carrying the green banners of Hamas that were until recently banned there.

In conclusion, the Hamas sources believe that Hamas’ endurance in the three conflicts between 2008 and 2014, as well as the successful prisoner swap deal in 2011, “were among the most important achievements for Hamas in the outgoing period, and this will improve its popularity.”

Now, the test for Hamas and its previous experience would be to succeed in overcoming the crisis following a war that was much more dramatic than the previous two conflicts. Three weeks have passed since the ceasefire, but the effects of the war and the blockade continue, while political disputes tear at the Palestinian body gravely injured by Israeli fire.

Abbas attacks Hamas for fear of its popularity?

Israeli press reports have conjectured that the attacks waged by President of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas on Hamas after the end of the war in Gaza do not necessarily indicate that his popularity in the Palestinian street has increased or that attitudes vis-à-vis Hamas had changed, “as much as it indicates that the balance of power within the street has shifted in favor of Hamas after the war.”

The Israeli Channel 7 said a few days ago that Abbas saw Hamas’ consent to a consensus government before the war as a sign of weakness on its part, but that today, Abbas fears Hamas would enter the government from a position of strength, with its popularity having increased during the war. This, the channel argued, could enable it to control power in the West Bank more than Fatah could control Gaza.

The Israeli channel also compared the relationship between Abbas and Hamas to the relationship between the leaders of the Arab countries and ISIS, where the leaders have called on the West to strike ISIS at a time when they have the ability to do so themselves, but are averse to fighting this group for fear of antagonizing the Sunni Arab street.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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